* Course information is representative of a first-semester freshman year class schedule and is not a comprehensive list of required texts. Prices are for new textbooks purchased at the University Bookstore.
With the price of textbooks increasing, MU officials have started looking for ways to reduce those costs. This includes the possibility of a new program that would allow students to rent the books they need.
Other strategies, outlined in a report by the MU Faculty Council’s Student Affairs Committee, include increasing the availability of used books, improving faculty awareness about “bundling,” and urging professors to work more closely with University Bookstore before ordering course materials.
The committee’s report referenced a recent study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which examined the five most popular textbooks at 59 universities across the country. The group found that, since 1994, the wholesale prices charged by textbook publishers have increased 62 percent versus 14 percent for all other finished products.
Both faculty and bookstore officials agreed that increasing the availability of used books could significantly reduce costs. In fiscal year 2006, MU students saved $4.6 million by purchasing used course materials, according to the committee’s report.
Michelle Froese, public relations manager for the University Bookstore, said the bookstore could offer more used books if professors submit their textbook orders early enough to allow bookstore staff to locate more of the used versions. The bookstore will also be able to pay students more for their used books at the end of the semester if it knows the book will be in demand again.
The proliferation of bundles — texts packaged with supplemental materials such as compact discs, workbooks and passwords to interactive Web sites — has also cut into the used-text market. Bundles can add 10 percent to 50 percent to the price, and most bundles cannot be sold back to the bookstore.
In 2004, 9 percent of books sold at University Bookstore were bundled, Froese said. That percentage increased to 38 percent in 2006. The use of bundles, which average a cost of about $80 more than stand-alone books, should be examined more closely by professors who order them, Froese said.
“Professors should evaluate if they think students will benefit from all the components in the bundle,” Froese said. “If every piece of your bundle is going to be used, it’s a good investment.”
The committee reported that one MU academic department required more than 1,500 students to purchase a bundled textbook, at $133.50 plus shipping, directly from the publisher. The deal generated $15,000 in revenue for the department and $160,000 for the publisher. Students, on the other hand, paid about $170,000 more than they would have if the materials had been available as used.
Publishers say supplemental materials in a bundle boost student performance.
Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for Higher Education for the Association of American Publishers, the book industry’s largest lobbying group, said that 75 percent of professors recommend or require supplements because of their educational value.
“Look,” Hildebrand said, “bundles are cheaper. If the professor wants to get the textbook and two or three supplements, they’re invariably cheaper.”
But some professors may not look into the pricing of all of a bundle’s components, said Michael Devaney, chairman of the Faculty Council’s Student Affairs Committee.
Reducing bundles would also make a textbook rental program more viable. While many supplementary materials would need to be purchased, the core textbook could be rented for a much lower price. Froese said Karen Jeffries, the associate director of University Bookstore, has been meeting with department heads on campus about the possibility of a rental program, which would likely require a department to commit to one textbook for three years. The classes most likely to use a rented book would be general education classes with a large enrollment
and not readily needing the latest editions of a text, Froese said. But Hildebrand said book rental programs are unpopular with faculty and often too expensive for large universities. He pointed to a 2005 report by the Illinois Board of Higher Education that states textbook rentals could lower costs for students, but that such programs are costly to start and maintain. Requiring the same text for three years consecutively could also result in “intellectual rigidity,” the report said.
“I think this has the greatest potential for reducing student costs,” Devaney said, “but would like to examine how effectively the program operates at other institutions to determine if the students realize the savings.”
At Southeast Missouri State University, a book rental program supplies texts for all undergraduate courses. Jan Chisman, manager of SEMO’s bookstore and rental program, said that 99 percent of the school’s undergraduates rent their textbooks. Students pay a flat fee of $17.75 for each course and face no additional charges unless they fail to return the book after finals. Chisman said that not all SEMO faculty members like the rental program because it commits them to the same text for at least two years and requires that they assign only one book per course. On the other hand, many professors appreciate that nearly all of their students can afford to show up for class with the assigned text in hand. Hildebrand said textbook publishers share the same goal as university officials — to keep students’ costs under control without compromising their education. According to the publishing association, textbooks constitute less than 5 percent of a four-year college education, and other costs such as tuition, room and board, and student fees have risen faster than the cost of books. Hildebrand says the battle over textbook prices should be secondary to the importance of learning.
“If students believe they got a good return on their investment,” he said, “their complaints go away.”